Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Alamosa, New Mexico to Holbrook, Arizona with "Interesting Weather"

In Alamosa this morning, I was awake by 6:00, feeling fresh. It was 30 degrees outside, bright and sunny. Looking out my window to the west, a thick blanket of cloud lay over the San Juan Mountains, a storm coming in. Snow was expected in Alamosa later in the day. And my intended path would lead me directly into it. I had wanted to work my way back up to Gunnison, and then eventually over to U.S. 50 across Nevada ("America's Loneliest Highway"). But it didn't seem wise now. A more southerly path would be safer, I thought. I decided to follow U.S. 160 across Wolf Creek Pass to Durango.

It was just too cold to get out on the road early, especially since I'd be climbing to nearly 11,000 feet over the pass. But I could see the veils falling from the clouds, and the mountains already revealing a dusting of snow.

I set out for Wolf Creek, with the thought that should things get too dangerous, I could fall back to Alamosa. Drove as fast as I dared, hunkered down and constantly monitoring the mountain slopes still visible beneath the cloud cover. The tension mounted as I gained elevation, passing a few idle ski resorts en route to the pass. I kept constantly calculating how quickly I could withdraw should the sky start falling. The first snow flakes ratcheted up the anxiety. When I reached the tunnel through the summit, the snow was blowing and visibility was declining. On the west side of the tunnel is a broad expanse of pavement, but the lines were obscured by slush and snow.

Wolf Creek Pass, Colorado, with a winter storm bearing down. A half hour or so later, and I couldn't have crossed.

I could see that the highway descends rapidly from this point, and though the storm was intensifying, I thought I could quickly get down beneath the snow line. It was only about 20 miles to Pagosa Springs, and I knew that town is in a valley (with full services, if required.) So, I felt confident enough to stop and take a photo.

For the first few miles of descent, I was very tense, knowing that the BMW behaves very poorly in snow and ice. I could be on the ground in a flash. But the snow quickly turned to rain, and within half an hour I was relaxed again, dealing with weather which I was much more accustomed to. The rain was steady though, and it was clear to me that had I tried to cross the pass just a short time later, it would have been impossible.

Passed through the boom town of Pagosa Springs without stopping, and continued on to Durango (and lower elevations.) It was rainy, and cold. No let-up at Durango, I kept driving west, feeling confident that this weather would diminish as I reached the desert-like Four Corners region.

It appeared to be a correct assumption, as I reached Cortez and the skies began clearing. Feeling that I could now take a "breather", I stopped at Denny’s for something warm. I was still thinking of making my way northward, over to Monticello, then Moab, but the weather maps I had seen on the news, showing a system descending from the north, persuaded me to continue drifting southward. Moab would not be a good idea.

Carefree now, under sunny skies, I was headed to the Four Corners, when a sign drew me to a rural road that leads down McElmo Canyon, into Canyon of the Ancients National Monument and Hovenweep National Monument. Down a narrow canyon, I was surprised to find vineyards and the Guy Drew Winery. I had to stop. (With the weather no longer a concern, I felt I could stop.) I parked in a small, empty gravel lot. Ruth Drew greeted me and ushered me into her kitchen, where she hosts wine tastings. Very informal. She is very proud of the attractive straw-bale home they have built here. An open and airy Southwestern design. Very comfortable.

Southeast of Cortez, Colorado I ventured down a county road toward Hovenweep National Monument. In a narrow canyon, I found Guy Drew Vineyards and Winery and had to stop in to taste some wines.

Of course, I couldn't have more than a few sips, as I had no idea what road conditions awaited me down the canyon. But I savored samples of their 2003 Cabernet Franc, 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon, 2004 Dry Riesling, 2005 Viognier, a "Meritage" and 2004 Syrah. All the wines are good. Feeling it was the best of the bunch, I purchased a bottle of Syrah to carry with me.

As I was about to leave, a couple from Seattle arrived. We got to talking and I learned their son owns restaurant on Whidbey Island. He's Mark Schuster and has the Beachfire Grill, and is developing a golf course and marina. I'm sure he’s a fellow Drew and Susan must know of, either positively or negatively (since development on Whidbey is often a source of resentment.)

I continued down McElmo Canyon, crossing into Utah. I was now thinking I'd visit the Valley of the Gods, since the last time I passed through there I was running from a storm.

As I emerged from the canyon, I was struck with a frightening vision. The entire sky from southwest to north was a wall of black cloud, bearing down with startling intensity. The darkness was made all the more shocking by the brilliant quality of light in the canyons I had just been exploring. In a near panic, I hurried westward toward the junction of U.S. 191, the first opportunity to turn south, and hopefully away from the front. I raced south on 191, disregarding speed limits, but winds were now whipping all around me, picking up large grains of sand.

Crossing into Utah, I had wanted to turn north (right) to visit Valley of the Gods, but was greeted with this ominous wall of clouds. To the south (left), I could still see some blue sky, so I made a dash.

Stopped at Bluff to top off my fuel. I didn't want gas to be a limiting factor as I tried to escape. At 80 or 85 mph, I was just barely staying out ahead, focused on the narrowing patch of blue sky to the south. I was continuing southwest on U.S. 163 toward Monument Valley when suddenly the road turned west, and then northwest, into some of the most ugly weather I've seen. Blowing sand, rain, whipping winds and lightning.

I pulled over and desperately searched for options on the map. I only had a minute or two to decide. Back-tracked a few miles to 191, which runs directly south. I now had to ride at 85 or 90 mph to outrun the front. This really seemed like the tornado weather I had seen in Texas long ago.

I was heading south on U.S. 163, running from the storm, then the highway turned northwest, directly into the front. The clouds had a sickening greenish cast. If this were the Plains, I'd call it tornado weather. "This is not good."

Looking southward, there's still a trace of blue sky out there. I was desperate to break through to the sun.

I was staying just ahead of the rain and lightning and when I stopped for a photograph, I was overtaken by blowing sand within a minute or two.

Racing south on U.S. 191, 85 mph with a 60 mph crosswind, red dust beginning to fill the air, the sky was fast closing in around me.

Within a few minutes of taking this photo, I was engulfed in blowing soil. I couldn't even see the pavement ahead and had to brake hard. In a panic, I turned around and ran at full throttle. Moments later, I looked back to see I had been in a huge "dust devil".

At the junction of U.S. 160, I made another attempt to turn west toward Kayenta and Tuba City, but within minutes I was engulfed in the blowing sands. Without warning, visibility went to zero, swirling sand everywhere. I couldn't even see the road. My instinct was to turn around on the two-lane road and retreat. I did so without any thought to possible on-coming traffic. Almost lost control of the bike as I took off, the front wheel rising off the pavement.

A few moments later, the air cleared and I looked back. I had been engulfed in a huge "dust devil". Returned to U.S. 191 and continued south. I broke out of the front at Rock Point, taking refuge in a service station. The locals were quite excited by this crazy weather. One indicated it was nothing unusual. Quickly refueled and was off again, trying to build a buffer between me and the storm.

At Rock Point, Arizona I started to put some distance between me and the blowing sand (on the left here). For the next three hours, I was battered by powerful thunderstorms as I made my way to Holbrook on Interstate 40.

I considered seeking accommodations at Canyon de Chelly National Monument. Stopped at a couple motels, but found the rates exorbitant. I returned to the highway, and focused on getting far south, to warmer, drier weather. I was continually "teased" by small patches of blue sky to the south, and each time they'd be choked out by storm clouds.

For the next couple of hours, thunderstorms crossed my path from west to east, while the highway rose up and over a series of ridges. I tried to pace myself so as not to reach a ridge top when a thunderhead was on top of it, but there were so many cells, it was virtually impossible to cross without lightning striking in the area.

After a dozen of more cells, I was not dead, and began to worry less, though the stress had been utterly draining. I reached I-40 and turned west. At least on the interstate I wouldn't have to worry as much about road conditions, and could just focus on avoiding the thunderheads.

For me, this had been some of the wildest weather - right up there with the monsoons in Panama and the storms ringing Hurricane Katrina. I had repeatedly found myself contending with bursts of panic. After the snow in Wolf Creek Pass, I thought the worst was behind me and I'd just be coasting the rest of the day, just looking for a bit of warmer weather.

I found a Day’s Inn in Holbrook, Arizona with a room to spare. I often recognize, "I’m lucky. I can afford to come in from the cold. For many it’s quite different." My expired AAA card has gotten me lots of discounts! No one ever looks at it when I show them. Almost everyone can get a discount. I suspect it's only complete fools who pay the full posted price.

Inside my room, I spread out clothing and gear to dry. Walked to Denny’s for a "Philly Sandwich".

Back in the room, while the Weather Channel droned in the background, I worked on some notes. I've never seen anything like this weather system over the U.S. – a tight low pressure system spiraling counterclockwise, rapidly dropping down over Utah and Colorado. A mini-hurricane over the continental land mass.

Of course, I could have avoided all this drama and just stayed put in Alamosa. I knew the system would pass in a couple days. But I wanted to move, and wanted some excitement. I got a bit more than I bargained for.

Traveled about 475 miles today, and my butt never even bothered me. Too distracted!

I'm losing track of time zones! Is Arizona on Pacific Time?


Tim Spires said...

Looks like quite an adventure Tim! Nice shots of the storm! So how fast will a loaded down R1200 GS go at full throttle?

timtraveler said...

Well, I tested it once in Alberta and got into a "tank slapper" at just over 90 mph, so I keep it under that!